'End hukou system' call earns rebuke

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 06 March, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 06 March, 2010, 12:00am

Editors at The Economic Observer, the newspaper which initiated a joint editorial published on Monday criticising the mainland's hukou (household registration) system, have been punished for their bold action as other participating media confirmed a government order to remove the editorial from their websites.

Published on the eve of the annual meetings of the National People's Congress and the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference, the strongly worded joint editorial by 13 metropolitan newspapers stirred excitement as it called on the nation's legislators to abolish the hukou system, calling it 'obsolete', 'unconstitutional' and 'a violation of human rights'.

Collaborators included well-known titles such as the Chongqing Times and Guangdong's Southern Metropolis News.

However, the excitement was short-lived and Premier Wen Jiabao's passing mention of hukou reform in his government work report yesterday further shot down hopes that it would be abolished any time soon.

Two editorial staff who work at The Economic Observer confirmed that top editors at the paper received disciplinary warnings from government officials, but said they were 'not aware' of reports that a deputy editor had been sacked.

Meanwhile, all the publications involved and most major internet news portals have removed the editorial or reports of it from their websites. According to an editor of another media outlet that ran the editorial, the verdict from the Central Publicity Department was brief: 'This act was inappropriate'.

The publication of the editorial has itself become a censored topic for mainland media in the latest list of banned items issued by the department.

The hukou system, a resident-registration mechanism set up in 1958 to curb migration from rural areas to the cities, has increasingly come under fire in recent years as many see it as the root cause of a glaring rural-urban wealth gap and social disharmony. Advocates of its abolition say it subjects rural migrants to second-class treatment, barring them from equal access to education and jobs in cities they have worked and lived in for years.

Wen said yesterday: 'We will carry out reform of the household registration system and relax requirements for household registration in towns and small and medium-sized cities,' suggesting that any reform would only involve relaxation of restrictions, and not abolition of the system.

Some analysts said it was more the publishing of the editorial than the topic itself that prompted the punishment, since it was probably viewed by the authorities as unwelcome pressure ahead of the most important meetings in the country.

'Hukou reform has been a hot topic for public discussion for several years now,' said Hong Kong Baptist University media professor Huang Yu.

'However, it is unprecedented that 13 media [organs] joined hands to publish an editorial to advocate a social cause, especially when it's dressed up in such strong and sensational wording.'

NPC deputy Bai Shangcheng, the mayor of Guyuan, a small city of 1.5 million in Ningxia, said on the sidelines of the NPC meeting yesterday that it was critical that the hukou system be abolished as soon as possible.

Some 260,000 people in Guyuan were currently seeking work outside the city, the mayor said.

'Maybe not in the big cities like Beijing and Shanghai, but this regional barrier must be abolished for mid-sized cities soon,' Bai said.